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Taking the First Chair

Tammy Sue Wood


  • A savvy attorney who wants to garner that first-chair role researches and gets to know the partners in her firm to generate a potential partner client base for that first-chair opportunity.
  • Having won a seat at the table, the next step is to become indispensable.
  • One of the hardest things to do on the road to the first chair is to come straight out and ask for that opportunity.
Taking the First Chair
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She is accomplished. She is smart. She works hard. She doesn’t say no. But lawyers not much more senior seem to get the “choice” opportunities she has not yet had—like being in charge of key aspects of cases, having speaking roles in hearings, taking and defending important depositions, and going to trial. She wants the opportunities that they have. The good news is the steps to getting there are all within her control. The bad news is the first-chair role is likely not going to be handed to her unless she best positions herself to reach out and grab it.

This article provides tips for younger lawyers seeking to climb the steps toward that first-chair opportunity.

Get Connected

In a law firm environment, unless an attorney has her own outside clients who can afford her that first-chair opportunity, her clients are the partners at her firm. An attorney seeking to develop business researches potential clients to learn about their business and their legal needs, then she devises a plan to get in front of that desirable client she wants to land. Similarly, a savvy attorney who wants to garner that first-chair role researches and gets to know the partners in her firm to generate a potential partner client base for that first-chair opportunity.

Which partners have areas of practice that are attractive, interesting, growing, or super-busy? Which have matters that are deposition heavy, consist of small teams, and frequently go to trial? Which partners have a tendency to do all their own key work in a case, taking all the important depositions and limiting associates’ ability to have client contact? Which rely heavily on senior associates for heavy lifting and strategy? Which partners already seem wedded to their own favorite team, with no apparent opportunities for new players? If first-chairing a trial is your goal, ask yourself these questions to identify partner client development targets. Focus on getting work from those who need your help and will take it.

Once you identify the potential client base for your first-chair opportunity, the next step is getting a seat at the table. Having a reputation for being a high-quality lawyer who is reliable, smart, strategic, and available will move you closer to that seat. The lawyer who wants the first-chair opportunity ultimately has to be viewed by others to be worthy of that opportunity. To build your reputation, you must do good work and tactfully share your success stories with others at the firm. When a partner or senior associate compliments your work, thank that person and be fearless enough to ask that the partner or senior associate put in a good word for you with others.

You build a reputation for working hard by actually working hard. Partners generally have access to know what all associates’ hours are. If yours are low by comparison, it may give the impression of a lack of work ethic or a lack of desire by others to use your services. So ask for work, and do it as soon as it hits your plate. Do not wait until your pipeline is empty before you take steps to fill it. Partners tend to want to work with the associates who appear to be “sought after.” Show availability to do the work by being the first to answer the email plea for help to “all associates,” even when it is a time challenge to do so. Get to be top-of-mind by popping into that partner’s office you see working late or on the weekends. Ask questions about what he or she is working on and volunteer to help. That partner may not take you up on your offer right then, but the fact that you offered will not be forgotten.

Be Indispensable

Having won a seat at the table, the next step is to become indispensable. When given an inch on the case, find a way to take a yard. As a young lawyer, I had several strategies for doing this. In team meetings or discussions with the lead partner on the case, I took it upon myself to create master task lists with columns for the task, the due date, progress notes, and a spot for the responsible attorney. I would put my name in the responsible attorney spot on everything I wanted to do, and then some. Many times, my name was removed, but often it was not. As a result, I was able to do things I may not have otherwise been given the opportunity to do, had I waited for someone to ask me.

Another way to become indispensable in a case is to be the keeper of all knowledge. Become the person who is the most familiar with the documents, the timeline, and the cast of characters. And, most vital, when given the opportunity to have client contact, take it and make the most of it. The associate who makes the effort to meet the client, engage the client, and develop a relationship of trust with the client is going to be the associate the client will ask the partner to bring to trial. So volunteer to be present at meetings with the client, and add value at those meetings.

A word of caution in your efforts to take on more and more responsibilities and be seen as someone who is a highly capable hard worker: Be careful of the work you choose. It can define you. If you assign yourself administrative tasks, you may become chief administrator on a case, not first chair. Be careful of choosing only to do the brief writing or to lead the document review team. You may become seen as being permanently relegated to those roles. If the goal is to make it to second chair and then first chair at trial, learn from these intermediate roles, but make quick work of them before moving on to the next key position. If, however, your goal is to be first chair in the brief writing department or to be the master strategist and leader of giant document reviews, those are laudable goals as well. Bottom line: Keep the end goal in mind.

Be Dauntless

One of the hardest things to do on the road to the first chair is to come straight out and ask for that opportunity. We can have a tendency to think that if we do good work, work hard, and are indispensable to those around us, when the next good opportunity arises, there will be justice in the world and that opportunity will come to us. A person can wait around forever for that to happen, and no matter how much that person may have earned it, it will not be given without “the ask.” I tell all the associates I work with that they should always be trying to steal the case from me. They should be volunteering continually for the most important jobs on the case because at some point I will say “yes.”

Making the ask for business is something an attorney going after a new client has to do. Clients don’t just bestow work. The same principle applies in a firm environment to prime opportunities in a case. Those who speak up first and say “I will do that” are the ones who get the job. Be that person. The worst that can happen is the response is “No” or “Not yet” or “Not that, but this.” I have never heard a partner say, “That associate is a real problem. She is always asking to take on more challenging opportunities.” The moxie shown by making the request to take on one of the most challenging parts of a case will not be forgotten. The person who shows the courage to continually make that ask eventually will be at the front of the line for the next first-chair opportunity.